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March 21, 2016

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Bizarre findings on Americans: Less religion but more afterlife belief

March 21, 2016
Courtesy of San Diego State University
and World Science staff

A grow­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans have no trou­ble be­liev­ing in an af­ter­life while dis­pens­ing with the pesky part about be­lieving in a god, sur­pris­ing new find­ings sug­gest.

The re­search found that Amer­i­cans be­com­ing less re­li­gious, judg­ing from their self-re­ported be­liefs and pray­er habits, if any. And yet be­lief in an af­ter­life is be­com­ing slightly more pop­u­lar.

“Fewer peo­ple par­ti­ci­pated in re­li­gion or prayed but more be­lieved in an af­ter­life,” said San Die­go State Un­ivers­ity psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Jean M. Twenge, who led the re­search. “It might be part of a grow­ing en­ti­tle­ment men­tal­ity—think­ing you can get some­thing for noth­ing.” The study found that young peo­ple led the way in shed­ding re­li­gious cus­toms.

Twenge and col­leagues from Flor­i­da At­lantic Un­ivers­ity Case West­ern Re­serve Un­ivers­ity in Cleve­land found that the per­cent­age of Amer­i­cans who prayed or be­lieved in God reached an all-time low in 2014.

The re­search­ers an­a­lyzed da­ta from 58,893 re­spon­dents to the Gen­er­al So­cial Sur­vey, a sup­posedly na­t­ionally rep­re­sent­a­tive sur­vey of U.S. adults ad­min­is­tered be­tween 1972 and 2014. 

Five times as many Amer­i­cans in 2014 re­ported that they nev­er prayed as did Amer­i­cans in the early 1980s, and nearly twice as many said they did not be­lieve in God, the study found.

Amer­i­cans in re­cent years were al­so found less likely to en­gage in a wide va­ri­e­ty of re­li­gious prac­tices, in­clud­ing at­tend­ing re­li­gious ser­vic­es, de­scrib­ing one­self as a re­li­gious per­son, and be­liev­ing that the Bi­ble is di­vinely in­spired, with the big­gest de­clines seen among 18- to 29-year-old re­spon­dents. The re­sults were pub­lished March 21 in the jour­nal Sage Open.

“Most pre­vi­ous stud­ies con­clud­ed that few­er Amer­i­cans were pub­licly af­fil­i­at­ing with a re­li­gion, but that Amer­i­cans were just as re­li­gious in pri­vate ways. That’s no long­er the case, es­pe­cially in the last few years,” said Twenge, who is al­so the au­thor of the book, “Genera­t­ion Me.” “The large de­clines in re­li­gious prac­tice among young adults are al­so fur­ther ev­i­dence that Mil­len­ni­als are the least re­li­gious genera­t­ion in mem­o­ry, and pos­sibly in Amer­i­can his­to­ry.”

The one ex­cep­tion to the de­cline in re­li­gious be­liefs was a slight in­crease in be­lief in the af­ter­life, Twenge added.

The de­cline in re­li­gious prac­tice was­n’t ac­com­pa­nied by a rise in spir­it­u­al­ity, which, ac­cord­ing to Twenge, sug­gests that, rath­er than spir­it­u­al­ity re­plac­ing re­li­gion, Amer­i­cans are be­com­ing more sec­u­lar.


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A growing number of Americans have no trouble believing in an afterlife while dispensing with the inconvenience of believing in a god too, according to surprising new findings. The research found that Americans becoming less religious, judging from their self-reported beliefs and prayer habits, if any. And yet belief in an afterlife is becoming slightly more popular. “Fewer people participated in religion or prayed but more believed in an afterlife,” said San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge, who led the research. “It might be part of a growing entitlement mentality—thinking you can get something for nothing.” The study found that young people led the way in shedding religious customs. Twenge and colleagues from Florida Atlantic University Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland found that the percentage of Americans who prayed or believed in God reached an all-time low in 2014. The researchers analyzed data from 58,893 respondents to the General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults administered between 1972 and 2014. Five times as many Americans in 2014 reported that they never prayed as did Americans in the early 1980s, and nearly twice as many said they did not believe in God, the study found. Americans in recent years were also found less likely to engage in a wide variety of religious practices, including attending religious services, describing oneself as a religious person, and believing that the Bible is divinely inspired, with the biggest declines seen among 18- to 29-year-old respondents. The results were published March 21 in the journal Sage Open. “Most previous studies concluded that fewer Americans were publicly affiliating with a religion, but that Americans were just as religious in private ways. That’s no longer the case, especially in the last few years,” said Twenge, who is also the author of the book, “Generation Me.” “The large declines in religious practice among young adults are also further evidence that Millennials are the least religious generation in memory, and possibly in American history.” The one exception to the decline in religious beliefs was a slight increase in belief in the afterlife, Twenge added. The decline in religious practice wasn’t accompanied by a rise in spirituality, which, according to Twenge, suggests that, rather than spirituality replacing religion, Americans are becoming more secular. belief